In this Article

Separated shoulder injuries occur when the ligaments between the collarbone and the shoulder blade are stretched or torn. The place where these two bones meet is called the acromioclavicular [ah-kro-mee-oh-klua-VIK-yoo-lahr], or AC joint. You may have a separated shoulder if you have pain, shoulder or arm weakness, or a bump or swelling at the top of your shoulder.

What is a Shoulder Separation?

A separated shoulder is an injury in your acromioclavicular [ah-kro-mee-oh-klua-VIK-yoo-lahr], or AC joint. The AC joint is where the shoulder blade (scapula) and collarbone (clavicle) meet. Ligaments are tough tissue that connect bone to bone. An injury to the ligaments in the AC joint can cause the collarbone to “separate” from the shoulder blade.

Shoulder separations don’t usually require surgery, but a severe shoulder separation may require surgery to repair the ligaments. In most cases, rest, ice, and pain medicine are enough to heal the injury. Full function can be regained in a matter of weeks.

Symptoms

Symptoms of shoulder separation include:

  • A bump at the top of the shoulder
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Intense pain at the top of the shoulder
  • Shoulder can’t be moved or is weak

Symptoms can be different from person to person, and you might have other symptoms not listed here. These symptoms can also be a sign of other related problems, like a bone fracture in your collarbone, arm, or shoulder blade.

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor if you have the symptoms above, or if your shoulder is tender or you feel persistent pain at the top of your shoulder. Because the injuries that cause separated shoulders can also cause bone fractures or concussions, you should see a doctor right away to either confirm a separated shoulder or rule out a more serious injury.

 

Causes

Separated shoulders often occur in sports, but can also be caused by a hard blow to the area between your collarbone and your shoulder, which can happen in a car accident or if you fall and land on your shoulder.

Diagnosis and Tests

Separated shoulders often occur in sports, but can also be caused by a hard blow to the area between your collarbone and your shoulder, which can happen in a car accident or if you fall and land on your shoulder.

 

Treatments

Treatment for a separated shoulder includes:

  • Closed reduction. The doctor will use specific movements to put your shoulder back in place.
  • Surgery. You may need surgery if you have:
    • Numb or cold fingers
    • Weak muscles in your arm
    • Bad shoulder deformity
  • Immobilization [ih-MOH-buh-lih-zay-shun]. The doctor may give you a splint or a sling to help keep your shoulder still. You may need to wear the splint or sling for a few days or a few weeks depending on how badly the shoulder is hurt.
  • Medicine. The doctor may prescribe medicine to help manage your pain while you heal.
  • Rehabilitation. Once the sling has been taken off, you may need physical therapy to get your shoulder back to normal.

Treatments you can do at home include:

  • Resting the shoulder. Don’t lift heavy things or lift your arm above your head.
  • Icing the injury. Put ice or frozen veggies on your shoulder for 20 minutes, every 15 minutes, or as your healthcare provider tells you to do. Make sure the ice is covered by a towel or a cloth so it doesn’t damage your skin.
  • Taking pain relievers. Over-the-counter medicine, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen can help with pain. Be sure to follow the directions from your healthcare provider on how much to take and for how long.
  • Doing prescribed exercises. Your health care provider may prescribe stretches or exercises to keep your shoulder healthy. These exercises will keep your shoulder from “freezing” or getting stuck in place.

Prevention

Separated shoulders can be prevented by:

  • Avoiding falls when possible
  • Wearing pads and gear when you play contact sports
  • Exercising to keep your shoulder strong and flexible

Support and Resources

American Academy of Orthopaedic Sugeons: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00033